“When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

– Humpty Dumpty to Alice in “Through the Looking Glass,” Lewis Carroll

Who’d a thunk it! Two straight days of front-page headlines featuring the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ definition of transfer receipts. Economics professors across the state must be panting dreaming up ways to make use of such a teaching moment. Unfortunately, the first lesson to be learned is semantic rather than economic. The greatest barrier to solving any of our social problems – economic or others – is the growing polarization of our political extremes, documented in a poll headlined earlier in the week.

And the major problem with that polarization is that words have come to be used not as a way to exchange ideas in an effort to arrive at a common understanding, but as a rallying cry, as a signal to fellow warriors, who already know the intended meaning, to join whatever skirmish has erupted. Does “welfare” mean “fraudulent rip-off” or does it mean “a compassionate hand for the needy?” Who knows? Depends on which Humpty you ask.

But one thing is for certain: Neither the Humpty on the right, nor the Humpty on the left wants to discuss meaning; they just want to rally the troops who answer to each of the already defined, believed and settled meanings they already have. And that’s why those in the middle are so fed up with the whole exchange. A cat fight between two Hollywood divas about red carpet placement may be briefly entertaining, but it hardly serves as “I have a dream …” for inspiring civic action. I’m reminded of an incident I witnessed at a public meeting some time ago when an employee of an oil company got up and said, “My employer’s name is not a hand grenade.”

Welfare! Exxon! Outside developers! Job-killing regulations! Our political debate has truly become a war of words, words that have become hand grenades lobbed rather pointlessly at opponents who always escape unharmed because the explosive meanings held in the heads of those who toss them have become meaningless jibberish for those targeted.

All this self-serving “fighting” for our future is unfortunate because how we choose – or don’t – to deal with the demographic challenge of our existing commitments to transfer payments will determine our future economic prosperity. Over the period between 2000 and 2012, earnings by place of work increased by 49 percent in the United States as a whole and by 43 percent in Maine. Over the same period, contributions for social insurance – the payroll taxes levied on both employees and employers to fund (at least some) of the transfer receipts that have suddenly become such a potent weapon in the culture wars – grew by 35 percent in the United States and by 28 percent in Maine. Hmmm. How long can that last? But then comes the real punch line – over the same period, everyone’s newest favorite phrase, personal current transfer receipts, increased by a whopping 118 percent in the United states and only a slightly lower 111 percent in Maine. Combine this with employment growth of 9 percent in the United States and 2 percent in Maine, and you’ve got a prescription for facing a very big rock and a very hard place, whatever words you choose to describe them.

Tomato, tomahto, potato, potahto, welfare, welfah, I say let’s call the whole thing off and start thinking about how we’re going adjust our community support systems – both the eligibility standards and the payment systems – to cover commitments we must make if we are to preserve our country.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]